I recently reviewed five novels for the Chicago Tribune (published 6.7.08), each set in China. They each gave me a provocative, often hilarious, sometimes breathtaking view into the country and its people, and I’ll share all five here this week and next.

The first is Yal Lianke’s Serve the People!. I excerpted the first lines on Literary Lotus a couple of weeks ago (peek here).

Serve the People!
By Yan Lianke
Translated by Julia Lovell
Black Cat; 217 pages; $14

When is a love story not really about love? In Yan Lianke’s cleverly amusing, almost epigrammatic novel “Serve the People!” about a Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldier ordered to become sexually involved with his division commander’s wife.

Wu Dawang is “an exceptional soldier fixated on promotion” who rises through the ranks to fulfill a promise to his wife and father-in-law and lives to the letter of Maoist ideology, serving the people and minding “what he should do and say—and what he shouldn’t.” That is, until his superiors say serving the commander and his wife is synonymous with serving the people, and Wu faces an impossible “land mine” of duty that leads to her bed.

Yan’s thoroughly entertaining, farcical plot immediately takes off like a controlled breeze, pausing in the exact places you want it to pause, and moving over events where you don’t want to linger. It’s impossible not to chuckle throughout, particularly during the scene in which Lu Lian and Wu Dawang destroy Maoist propaganda to prove each is the bigger counterrevolutionary.

Yan’s self-reflexive narratorial techniques frame the story in the context of deliberate literary device and slyly align the convoluted scenarios of communist China with an elaborate novel-like reality wrought by Mao. Hovering beneath this seamlessly executed, irreverent tongue-in-cheek depiction of how the communist lapidary “Serve the People” can be manipulated so people can serve themselves, is a cautionary tale about navigating the blurred lines between reality and fantasy that exist even in today’s post-9/11 jingoism.

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